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Essay about The Role of Disease in European Exploration and Colonization

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The Role of Disease in European Exploration and Colonization


Human mobility, in terms of European transcontinental exploration and colonization, began to truly flourish after the 1400s. This travel, inspired by financial motives and justified by religious goals, resulted in the European dominance and decimation of countless cultures in both the Americas and Eurasia. While at first glance it seems as though this dominance was achieved through mainly military means - European militias, like Spanish conquistadors, rolling over native tribes with their technologically advanced weapons - the reality is significantly more complex. The Europeans, most likely unknowingly, employed another, equally deadly weapon during their exploits. With their travel, they brought with them the infectious diseases of their homelands, exposing the defenseless natives to foreign malady that their bodies had no hope of developing immunities against. Because of the nature of disease and their limited knowledge about its modes of infection, the Europeans were able to dispense highly contagious and mortal illnesses while limiting their contraction of any native ones to the new territories. In short, they were able to kill without being killed. In this way, the travel of disease in conjunction with the travel of humans in a search for exotic commodities was able to limit or even halt the development of some cultures while allowing others to flourish at exponential rates.

Before discussing how disease has shaped history and altered cultures, it is important to understand how they themselves have developed and changed throughout history. Disease, in the broadest definition of the word, has been present since the beginning of humanity. Even ...


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...hat have prevented many outbreaks. Beginning in the 1300s with the Black Death, decrees prevented travel in hopes of containing the disease. Later, after the age of exploration, quarantine again was implemented to limit the spread of new diseases. And as Cippola notes, it is probably the limited travel restricted to the coastlines that prevented the contraction of many of these New World diseases in the first place. Nonetheless, travel, be it limiting it within countries or encouraging it in new lands, has influenced the spread of cultures and simultaneously the spread of disease

Sources Cited:

Cipolla, Carlo M. Guns, sails and empires; technological innovation and the early phases of European expansion, 1400-1700. Manhattan, Kan. : Sunflower University Press, 1985.

Ponting, Clive. Ch.11 from "A Green History of the World," St. Martins Press, NYC, 1991


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